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Why do boundaries matter?

Boundaries

To a greater or lesser extent, those working within the healing professions are all familiar with the importance of holding safe boundaries when working with clients. Maintaining boundaries allows for true therapeutic work to take place: when boundaries are clear, client and practitioner know the limits of their relationship and can feel safe as they work towards a common purpose. That's the theory, but what does it look like in practice?

Our own organisation works with individual and corporate clients, and has tripled in size within a short space of time. Bringing new personalities into the team and working with a wider client base, we wanted to ensure we were all on the same page when it came to this critical part of our work, and so we sought the expert guidance of Jessica Woolliscroft to help us along the way. Jessica is a Psychotherapist specialising in the treatment of PTSD, and due to the complex nature of her work has undertaken comprehensive research into protecting boundaries within the therapeutic space. In this article we would like to pass on some of Jessica’s valuable knowledge.

Jessica suggests that to understand the application of boundaries and boundary setting, we need to look at 3 areas:

  • What makes people feel safe?

  • The varying forces that act on people,

  • How we can help protect people from these forces

These are relevant whether we work as a coach, business consultant, teacher, psychotherapist, counsellor, or trainer. We shall look at each point in turn below.

What makes people feel safe?

People will not expose themselves or go deep unless they feel safe to do so. When learning something new (whether that is about a topic or one’s self) we go into unknown territory. We may not know what's ‘in there’, or we may think we know and that might be scary. In these situations, we need to feel safe enough to go forwards, and to create this safety requires a boundary. The boundaries make it clear what is inside and outside of the space; they contain what's going on inside of it. Psychotherapists use boundaries of time, space and ethics. These create a secure framework and the more secure the framework, the more we can look at ‘wobbly’ things, the paradox being that the more we create boundaries, the more that we can experiment within them. For instance, a safe space makes it possible to look at family secrets. Or in our case, corporate culture. In the case of a teacher, it can allow a student to admit to something they don't know or understand. In the context of home life, a child who feels safe and securely attached ultimately has the internal confidence to explore and move away.

The varying forces that act on people

There are all sorts of forces that act on us, and these can be categorised under 6 headings. Interpersonal, referring to the relationships between people, intra-psychic, the relationship we have with ourselves, economic, political, religious and cultural. For example, from an intra-psychic perspective, an individual may feel so overwhelmed by feelings of anger that they can't listen to or engage with what their therapist is saying. In a 2004 research study, Dalenberg found that the most likely source of anger experienced by a client was when their therapist shifted boundaries. To cite an organisational example, in some businesses the extent to which individuals feel unable to communicate freely can mean that they resort to secret channels. In a study in 2008 by Sandra Bloom, graffiti was used as a way of communicating thoughts, feelings or discontent with the corporate culture rather than speaking out directly.

How we can help protect people from these forces

Coaches, trainers and psychotherapists may all have different jobs, but they all have in common the need to create formative spaces for people to learn. The need may differ in terms of the degree, however the boundaries need to be safe enough. To create this safe place – or ‘hold the frame’ as it is also known – professionals need to have a knowledge of themselves and their work ethics and a willingness to hold and defend these.

Below is some guidance for those working with clients in the effective use of boundaries:

  • Understand the different types of boundaries (time, space and ethics for example) and the task you are there to do. Agree the task in advance and be clear about what you can and cannot achieve.
  • Be willing to act. Have the courage to say ‘no’ sometimes. Boundaries are meaningless without the courage to act upon them.
  • Understand the boundaries relating to power balances within the client relationship. Know that the client may be being oppressed elsewhere in their world (for example from their wider culture and the expectations that form a part of this). Find ways to work within these constraints that respect what is possible and achievable for that person in terms of change
  • Understanding yourself and your field is great, and knowing where your role starts and ends is equally important. Keep a boundary around what role you are there to do and what is outside of your remit: as this can help people to feel safe.
  • Remember that holding a boundary means being honest about setting goals and considering whether tasks are possible.
  • Explore your ethics. The word ‘ethics’ comes from ‘ethos’ that means character. Look at the ethics which govern your work. Are you late? Do you keep your promises? Are the goals you agree with clients honest and reachable? Letting a client down loses trust.  Managing expectations can provide hope.

In addition, here are some questions that you can begin to ask yourself in relation to boundary setting within your own practice. Each situation is different and there is not one ‘catch all solution’, however the questions below can help you to begin to explore how you might deal with boundary issues in the future:

  • Who is the client in each individual situation? Is it the organisation you are working with or their employees? Is it the family as a whole, or the individual members? In each instance, how might you operate if these needs clashed?
  • What is the task at hand? Is it achievable? Is it ethical?
  • Who needs to know what information and when?
  • What, if any, are the dual relationships and how do they affect all of the above?

You may also want to develop your own set of questions, which form the basis of initial exploration and enquiry as you begin to deepen your awareness and knowledge of this important subject.

References

Bloom, S. (1997). Creating Sanctuary: Toward the evolution of sane societies. London: Routledge.

Bloom, S. (2005). Societal trauma: democracy in danger. In N. Totton (Ed.), The politics of psychotherapy (pp. 17-29). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Dalenberg, C. J. (2004). Maintaining the safe and effective therapeutic relationship in the context of distrust and anger: countertransference and complex trauma. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training., 41(4), 438-447.

Based upon the research of Jessica Woolliscroft from:

Woolliscroft; J. (2010) Freedom and oppression in therapeutic space. Unpublished Masters Dissertation. University of Chester.

Jessica Woolliscroft is a private practitioner working at The Hope Street Centre in Sandbach, Cheshire. You can find out more about her work by visiting www.jessicawoolliscroft.co.uk

Ann Lowe is one of the founding Directors of The Resilience Programme. In addition, she provides writing services to a number of small businesses including The Hope Street Centre and Brightstone Clinic in Cheshire, and many more. 

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